”Fateless,” arguably the most haunting and sobering of recent movies in which the decisive setting is a Nazi death camp, begins with a perversely disarming remark: “I didn’t go to school today.”
It’s entrusted to the protagonist and narrator, Gyorgy Koves, whom we first observe as a 14-year-old Budapest schoolboy in 1944, shortly before the systematic roundup of Hungarian Jews to appease the Hitler regime, no longer certain of conquest but still prodigiously intimidating and destructive.
The opening line anticipates a belated ironic rejoinder, spoken with eloquent bitterness by another imprisoned schoolboy: “We should have learned nothing but Auschwitz.” As it happens, Auschwitz isn’t the final destination for Gyorgy. Assigned to slave labor detachments, he’s transported to Buchenwald and the unfamiliar Zeitz in later episodes. The lethal emphasis in “Fateless” shifts from extermination in the gas chambers to the prolonged ravages of grueling labor, starvation, brutality and despair.
During one remarkable sequence — Gyorgi, memorably portrayed by 12-year-old Marcelle Nagy and known more familiarly as Gyuri or Gyurka — appears to have met a merciful death. Director Lajos Koltai and cinematographer Gyula Pados certainly escort the character out of his wasting body in a pictorially eerie and persuasive manner. His recovery seems a sardonic twist of fate not a miraculous “affirmation” but one more example of the mocking singularity of life while it lasts.
Once rescued and repatriated, this teenage survivor of the Holocaust is ill at ease with solicitous but uncomprehending relatives in postwar Budapest. His estrangement even prompts downright nostalgic pangs for the appalling clarity of the camps. He resolves to talk about his happiest recollections when questioned about them in the future.
“Fateless” derives from a novel that had been published in 1975 and then rediscovered a decade later. The author, Imre Kertesz, was born in 1929 and transported to the camps when he was 15. During his writing career he made Germany his place of residence for many years. Evidently, he found German readers more responsive to his work than Hungarians, ascribing it to the fact that accounts of the Holocaust were frequently published and discussed in Germany but seldom in Hungary. In interview material appended to the DVD edition, he recalls friends asking, “How can you live among the Germans?” His reply: “How can I live among the Hungarians?”
Eventually, he facilitated both a movie version of his first novel (published as “Fatelessness”) and a reconciliation with kinsmen by being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2002. That in itself prompted the Hungarian government to subsidize half the production cost, a gesture that also shifted financial control away from predominantly German investors.
Mr. Kertesz was also persuaded to salvage a screenplay after being keenly disenchanted with a version that producers had commissioned from a British writer. He recalls the nature of his participation during an interview recorded in 2004, shortly before Mr. Koltai began shooting the film. It must be unique in the newly minted annals of DVD supplements and commentaries. As far as I know, Mr. Kertesz is the only Nobel laureate who has been in a position to speak authoritatively about the movie version of one of his books.
Some of his remarks will sound unforgivably harsh in Hollywood. His disdain for Steven Spielberg’s film version of “Schindler’s List” sounds unqualified, but it boils down to a profound difference in outlooks and life experience — the gulf that separates hard-earned misanthropy from incorrigible optimism. Mr. Kertesz considers the Spielberg approach “unacceptable because all this horror is pictured like a victory of humanity.” On the contrary, “The Holocaust was never an affirmation of life, so it’s a totally fake interpretation … a complete mistake and lie for anyone who knows what happened.”
Mr. Kertesz’s argument with the original screenplay calls attention to another aspect of a grave outlook. He objected to a flashback format in which the Gyorgy character was introduced as a mature figure decades after his survival. The episodes of his youthful captivity and suffering were systematically interwoven, creating a “memory” scenario that was the last thing he had in mind. Even worse, the protagonist “remembered stuff that wasn’t in the book.”
By the author’s reckoning, the whole point was the “linearity” of Gyorgy’s gradual immersion in a political and social calamity. It needed to proceed one oblivious or foolhardy step at a time until he was engulfed in a nightmare that should have been the death of him, since it hastened the death of millions. Despite Mr. Koltai’s lack of experience as a film director — he had been an accomplished cinematographer since the late 1970s in both Europe and the United States — the writer felt he understood the nature of the book. He also thought Mr. Koltai was better qualified to succeed with a first feature than he himself had been with a debut novel, largely ignored when new.
Anyway, they hit it off and the book ended up in appreciative and skillful hands. “Time is a death sentence in the book,” Mr. Kertesz reflects. “Lajos understood that. Time is terrible. That’s the motive of the novel. And for a director it’s such a hard thing to create the chemistry that will maintain tension in a step-by-step concept. It’s easier for a writer to describe that. The director must show it. So it’s his movie. Films always belong to the director. A script is an open ticket that the director uses as he wishes.”
Some tickets get you further than others. The curiously astringent but affecting emotional quality of “Fateless,” along with its blend of ominously beautiful imagery, seems far removed from Mr. Koltai’s first directing venture in Hollywood, the newly released tear-jerker “Evening,” which combines amorous nostalgia of a gummy consistency with imagery of a supremely glossy sophistication. It’s enough to convince you that there’s no way of concealing the basic thematic strength or weakness of source material.
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and depictions of brutality and suffering in Nazi concentration camps)
CREDITS: Directed by Lajos Koltai. Screenplay by Imre Kertesz and Gyorgy Spiro, based on Mr. Kertesz’s novel “Fatelessness.” Cinematography by Gyula Pados. Production design by Tibor Lazar. Music by Ennio Morricone. In Hungarian and German with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 140 minutes
DVD EDITION: ThinkFilm Home Entertainment
WEB SITE: www.thinkfilms.com